Film Review: Hors Satan (Outside Satan)

Controversial yet meditative French drama makes inscrutability its <i>raison d&#8217;etre.</i>

Director Bruno Dumont (The Life of Jesus, Twentynine Palms) wrestles yet again with spiritualism and the issues of good and evil in Hors Satan (Outside Satan), a story about a homeless drifter who wanders the northwest French countryside. What makes this exceedingly slow-moving film interesting are both the narrative’s unexpected, thought-provoking moments and the director’s aesthetic rigor. Though tedious and exhausting, Hors Satan never flinches from its stark if uncertain mission. Even art-house devotees will find it tough sledding, but they ought to stick with it.

In the minimal narrative written by Dumont, a mysterious man (David Dewaele) arrives in a quaint, rural community and begins an intimate yet odd relationship with a tomboyish woman (Alexandra Lemâtre) who appears to have been abused by another man (later revealed to be her father). We are unable to decipher the drifter’s intentions—he might be a force for good or something evil or a combination of both, but we gather the woman has “hired” him to protect her.

After the nameless man (called “the Guy” in the credits) commits some excessively violent acts, we may assume he is the Satan of the film’s title, but if one of those acts is killing the man who has been cruel to the young woman, what does that make this “Guy”? And if curing another, even younger woman’s catatonic state involves a method not associated with religious spirituality, we are as unsure as ever.

Later, the Guy has a strange sexual encounter with a female hitchhiker and, around the same time, it appears that his tomboy friend has been killed; thus, we continue to wonder if he is a serial killer, or if he is somehow trying to protect these women. A complete surprise at the end begins to answer the question.

Apart from reworking the styles and themes of his earlier films, Dumont appears to be referencing everything from Rossellini’s “The Miracle” chapter of L’amore (1948), Bresson’s Diary of a Country Priest (1951), Dreyer’s Ordet (1955), and even Romain Gary’s Birds of Peru (1968). It is hard to detect a sense of irony in Dumont’s austere probing and questioning, making Hors Satan, for the most part, seem like a relic from a more classical movie age (but then even Rossellini mixed humor and irony into his bleak narrative). It is also difficult to believe the filmmaker is truly a devout atheist (as he claims) after witnessing such an ambiguous and agnostic text. Nevertheless, more conventionally religious types will find the film deeply offensive, for the sex and murder scenes alone, if nothing else. And it is those au courant blood-and-ketchup moments that keep Hors Satan in a contemporary vein—for better or worse.

Viewers who turn (or walk) away, though, will miss Dumont’s ability to transform his deliberately paced story, with its confounding characters and events, into a dense cinematic work. From the many long-shot, long-take widescreen vistas (courtesy of cinematographer Yves Cape) to the purely “natural” audio track (all wind, bird and breathing sounds) to the restrained yet knowing interactions of the actors (a game ensemble, to be sure), Hors Satan becomes the case of a bravely demanding artist trying to achieve something different through the filmic form. Whether or not he succeeds is another question.